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Emulation isn't a dirty word, and one man thinks it can save gaming's history

Open source software can save games, whether Nintendo likes it or not

Frank Cifaldi, head of restoration at developer Digital Eclipse, took to the stage at this week's Game Developers Conference for an hour-long talk about game preservation. Emulation — a software process by which programmers are able to make one computer pretend to be an entirely different kind of computer — is the best solution for keeping games in print, Cifaldi said.

But the clock is ticking. Games are being lost right now, and something needs to be done about it if the video game industry is to avoid the same fate as the film industry.

"According to the Film Foundation, over half the films made before 1950 are gone," Cifaldi said. "I don’t mean that you can’t buy these on DVD. I mean they’re gone. They don’t exist anymore." For films produced before 1920, Cifaldi said, that number jumps to 80 percent.

"That terrified me. I wasn’t particularly a film buff, but the idea of these works just disappearing forever and never being recoverable scared the crap out of me. So I started wondering is anyone doing this for games. Is anyone making sure that video games aren’t doing the same stupid shit that film did to make their heritage disappear?

"And yeah, there were people doing this. We didn’t call them archivists. We didn’t call them digital archeologists or anything. We called them software pirates."

It's emulation's long association with piracy, Cifaldi said, that has given it a bad name. Nintendo in particular seems to have a particular aversion towards it, he noted, pointing to their official statement on the issue which has been available at their corporate website for the last 16 years.

How Come Nintendo Does Not Take Steps Towards Legitimizing Nintendo Emulators?

Emulators developed to play illegally copied Nintendo software promote piracy. That's like asking why doesn't Nintendo legitimize piracy. It doesn't make any business sense. It's that simple and not open to debate.

But this language, Cifaldi claims, is disingenuous because the Wii U's Virtual Console is nothing more than an emulator.

More damning, Cifaldi claims to have found a piece of hexadecimal code from a freely available Nintendo Entertainment System emulator — a kind of watermark from a Nintendo emulator known as iNES — embedded within the code of the version of Super Mario Bros. for sale on the Virtual Console right now.

"I would posit," Cifaldi said, "that Nintendo downloaded Super Mario Bros. from the internet and sold it to you."

Polygon reached out to Nintendo for comment on that accusation, to which they responded emphatically; "Nintendo is not using ROMs downloaded from the internet."

Regardless of Nintendo's stance on emulation, Cifaldi said that the easiest, the most accurate and the most non-destructive way forward for digital games preservation was to use emulators such as Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator and Multi Emulator Super System, colloquially known as MAME and MESS respectively.

Cifaldi argued that if can use a modified version of DOSBox to sell classic PC games, why can't some company use MAME and MESS to package and sell classic arcade and console games? It's easier now than ever since, on March 4 of this year, MAME and MESS went open source under the same license as DOSBox, meaning that for the first time those emulators can be used commercially for free.

"I’m not saying MAME and MESS are perfect," Cifaldi said, but since the code is open source volunteers can easily contribute to making it better. His own company, which recently ported Mega Man to modern platforms, is playing with the technology, and may use it in a commercial release before long, but the code is out there for anyone.

"We’re just a single studio," Cifaldi said. "I can imagine someone like an Amazon forking MAME, bringing it in house, bringing it up to snuff and bringing games back."

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